Playlists as Fast Food

Complaining about playlist is old news by now. Cherie Hu was articulating “Our New “post-playlist” Reality” almost three years ago. 

Yet, by design and by necessity, the playlists that get the most reach and engagement on Spotify treat their artists as disposable. 

That might sound bleak, but just think about it: Spotify’s playlists need to serve Spotify as a product first and foremost before serving the artists they feature. As a subscription service, Spotify needs to keep users “sticky” and engaged on their platform, which in part means not turning users away with badly curated playlists. 

What this means for curation depends on the playlist. For more genre-focused channels, the content needs to be updated regularly and kept as “fresh” as possible; for more mood-driven channels, the content doesn’t need to change as frequently, so long as it continues to provide functional value to the end user, regardless of which artists show up. In both cases, the artist is disposable in service of the product, just like features are disposable in the ongoing development and improvement of software. 

Hence, “post-playlist” can be characterized as a growing attitude of disillusionment among up-and-coming artists and labels that playlists are not as meaningful to or aligned with their business as the hype had promised.

To my taste, as a music fan, there is something of a fast-food aspect to how playlists are usually presented on Spotify:

A big bold menu with simple choices. 

All choices ready for instant consumption. Little extra information, context or anything that might distract the customer.

Little way to really make a custom-made list, mix “flavors” or even plan a multi course “meal” with a sense of beginning and of ending.

(It is somewhat ironic that restaurants and other business have much better options to either choose instant music (like “AI-generated stations from sound tags”) or program a full schedule (“Drag-and-drop scheduling”) from Spotify’s partner Soundtrack Your Brand.)

There is no real way to “savor” a playlist thru days or weeks. Every time you choose a list it starts in song #1 or at some random point in shuffle mode. Every listening session is in practice as disposable as a less than warm Big Mac.

Another way in which the playlists are perishable: New songs come in, old songs move to the bottom and then are thrown away. You can listen and “save” them only for a while. There is no way to go back one playlist as it was at any point in the past. There is only “now” at Spotify’s “counter”.

Certainly this all means a lot of convenience for users. Most of the time they are in a hurry and need something quick to start listening. 

But this cannot be the only way. There must be more options to serve music. Some rough possible ideas:

Richer ways to explore the alternatives.

Structured ways to browse the content.

Subtler ways to present recommendations.

Tools for the listener prepare, organize, select listening sessions. 

Practical ways to switch between listening “modes” (for examples, a robust queue of new music that the user can play intermittently, only when in the mood. Or it could be easy to try a new playlist and later return to the previous one at the exact point it was switched etc.)

Ways to shape the menu to their taste and circumstances.

Ample access to trusted curators with good and compatible taste.ll

Access to more context and information.

Dedicated apps for specific uses and genres

Even as metaphor fast food should be used in moderation!

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